Sudden melting in Greenland: New concerns about global warming

(click for larger image) The extent of Greenland's ice sheet surface, in white, on July 8, left, and July 12, right, based on measurements from three satellites, which pass over at different times and whose data are combined and analyzed. The deepest pink areas reflect maximal certainty that the ice has melted.

This has been a summer of rare heat -- including (obviously) in the U.S. The following report appeared in the New York Times (July 24, 2012) and describes a troubling development in Greenland, the giant frozen island in between Canada and Europe.

Within four days, the virtually entire surface of Greenland's famous ice sheet has turned to slush.

Just to be clear, this is not the disappearance of the whole thick sice sheet itself, but the unusually widespread "melt" of its surface. 

Rare Burst of Melting Seen in Greenland's Ice Sheet



In a scant four days this month, the surface of Greenland's ice sheet melted to an extent not witnessed in 30 years of satellite observations, NASA reported on Tuesday.

On average, about half of the surface of the ice sheet melts during the summer. But from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt expanded from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent, according to scientists who analyzed the data from satellites deployed by NASA and India's space research institute.

"I started looking at the satellite imagery and saw something that was really unprecedented" since the advent of satellite imaging of the earth's frozen surface, or cryosphere, said Thomas L. Mote, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia who for 20 years has been studying ice changes on Greenland detected by satellite.

While scientists described it as an "extreme event" not previously recorded from space, they hastened to add that it was normal in a broader historical context.

Ice core samples taken from the summit of Greenland's ice sheet that shed light on 10,000 years of its history show that a similar large-scale melting event has happened roughly every 150 years, said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who has also studied the satellite imagery. Because the previous vast melt occurred in 1889, this year's is more or less on schedule, she said.

During the event, the surface ice on the sheet's summit was always within a degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) or so of refreezing, Dr. Koenig added. Around July 14, the ice loss began to reverse, she said.

click for larger map of Greenland's location between Canada and Europe

Nonetheless, the scientists said, the melt was significant because Greenland's ice sheet is unequivocally shrinking as a result of the warming of the world's oceans, and the event could help broaden their insights into climate change and earth systems.

"Even though this one event might be part of normal variation, it's still a fantastic experiment for us so we can try to understand how the ice sheets are going to change," Thomas P. Wagner, head of NASA's cryosphere program, said in an interview. He said he and other scientists would continue to sort through ocean, weather and surface data from the melt to seek a deeper understanding of why it happened and what it means in the context of the global climate system and other events.

Just last week, for example, a chunk of ice about two times as large as Manhattan broke free from the remote Petermann Glacier in northwestern Greenland, Dr. Wagner noted. Two years ago, the glacier lost a chunk of ice four times as big as Manhattan.

Normally, ice "calving" of this magnitude is seen only every 10 or 20 years, scientists pointed out last week.

Dr. Mote said the unusual surface melt in Greenland's ice sheet this month coincided with a series of "ridges" of warm weather -- areas of high pressure that range from the earth's surface up to the jet stream -- that had been moving across Greenland since the end of May.

"Normally during the month of July, on any given day we'll see about a quarter of the ice sheet covered in melt," he added.

Dr. Mote said that although he typically studied satellite images that were a few months old, he had taken a look at the current pictures after a colleague conducting research in Greenland notified him that there seemed to be an unusually high amount of melting.



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  • Guest - Maju

    Even though it might be just a random episode, in my opinion the last decade (or rather several but very specially the last one) has seen a very intense climatic warming. There was on parenthesis between 2008 and 2011 coincident with the longest Solar Minimum (almost no sunspots, directly related to lower temperatures) in a century or more but even that parenthesis was not one of clearly colder temperatures just less abnormally high ones.

    Now that the Solar Minimum is over we should expect another decade of even sharper temperature climbing, assuming that the causes of global warming are still there, what (according to most scientists) seems to be the case.

    If this would be an isolated episode, it'd be interesting but less worrisome, but in the last many years we have seen stuff like this almost all the time: opening of the NW passage, melting of the Kilimanjaro, recession of almost all glaciers on Earth, thawing of arctic and antarctic sea ice, advance of the deserts, massive droughts...

    While some capitalists and states are looking forward to "new opportunities" related to global warming such as Arctic Sea exploitation, most of the effects are clearly negative, like destruction of harvests which is leading again to a global food crisis.

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